Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama took questions on faith for 45-minutes each Sunday in a "Compassion Forum" held at Messiah College near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Both of them spoke engagingly about their own upbringing, about how their faith informs their thinking about public policy, and about the role that faith should play in the civic debate. While emphasizing their own respective Christian sensibilities, each sought to emphasize their appreciation of religious diversity in America, and of their respect for peoples of other faith around the world.
The candidates addressed questions from two moderators and from a large audience made up of religious figures from around the United States. Sen Clinton appeared first and Sen Obama took her place at the mid-point. The event was sponsored by the nonpartisan group Faith in Public Life . Senator John McCain had been invited to participate, but declined to appear.
Each candidate was asked at the start about comments Sen Obama had made in California last week, addressing a question about his appeal to working class people. Because the working poor face significant economic and other challenges in their lives, he had said, "it's not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."
Responding Sunday night, he said it was indisputable that many people, both in cities and small towns, face injustice in their lives that leads to bitterness. He said that it was only right that people depended on their faith and their families in times of difficulty. He intimated that his remarks of a week earlier had awkwardly mixed common sources of solace, like religion, with the darker instincts of human nature, like bigotry or anti-immigrant sentiment. But many people caught up in the trials of their lives had come to feel over the past seven years that the government was not listening to them or doing enough to address their problems.
Each candidate expressed their respect for Catholicism. Sen Clinton mentioned the impending visit of Pope Benedict and acknowledged his public calls for greater striving around the world on behalf of the poor. Sen Obama described having attended a Catholic school as a child, and referred twice to his touring around Pennsylvania with prominent Catholic Senator Bob Casey.
Both candidates were asked whether life begins at conception, and both expressed their belief in the dignity of early life. Sen Clinton responded by saying she had grappled with this question throughout her adulthood, and she said she intended to work creatively to make abortion rare in the US, and specifically cited her work on adoption and foster care. She talked about speaking out at the International Women's Conference in Beijing in 1995 against forced abortion and sterilization as means of enforcing the one-child policy there. She mentioned her experience traveling to Romania, where the government had sought under communism to compel the largest family sizes possible and where abortion had been illegal. They both agreed that common ground was possible in achieving meaningful reductions in the number of abortions.
Neither was critical on this issue of President Bush, who has spoken loudly about abortion while proving substantially less effective than the preceding Democratic Administration in bringing down the national abortion rate. Mr Bush vetoed Democratic abortion reduction legislation without comment in October 2007, under the guise of fiscal responsibility.
The rhetorical high point of the discussion with Sen Obama came when Rev Jim Wallis of Sojourners asked why poverty rates today are identical to the rate 40 years ago when Rev Martin Luther King spoke out about poverty. 1 in 6 American children currently live in poverty. Asked if he would commit himself to a specific goal of cutting poverty in half during his Administration, Sen Obama dramatically agreed that this was a difficult but achievable goal.
Sen Clinton was asked why a just God would allow so much suffering in the world. "I don't know. I can't wait to ask Him!" she said. But then she went on to offer a moving reflection on the mystery of suffering, and suggested that the one thing we know for sure is that we are all called to respond to the suffering of others with the fullest breadth of our abilities.